What are we doing to talk about the shadow?

There is a shadow among us. And I am wondering if we should all talk about it.

Image credit: Worry_lines on Instagram

I recently read about the inspiring ice man and how he began immersing himself in icy water for longer and longer periods as a way of coping with grief. He ended up breaking world records for under ice swimming and now even runs classes where he teaches people how to endure elements and be in their bodies. He was coping with, in his words, the aftermath of ‘the shadow’ that ended up causing his wife to take her own life. Have you heard of Wim Hof? His work with ice is normally what gets people excited, but I was most moved by his talk of the shadow as an initial catalyst.

It is rough stuff.

New Zealand has an epidemic of mental health issues and some teens are in a baffling inbetween stage of being too serious for a standard councilor but not serious enough to be referred to the specialists they need. The CAHMS waiting list and length of wait is growing and it is increasingly up to teachers and Deans to play triage and try to refer kids to the right places in time for it to be useful.

I recently lost a close friend to suicide so this topic hits close to home for me. I see kids struggling with depression and they feel invisible because no noone is doing anything for them. They are referred and then what? They wait to be seen and it might take six months or longer to reach the top of the list. So what can we do in the inbetween?

Naming emotions with younger children is important to help them to learn emotional regulation. (Name it to tame it is a phrase coined by Dr Daniel Siegel – here is a bite sized article). As a parent, we work through lots of words for emotions trying to teach our kids that emotions are complex but also nameable. When they can’t talk about it, we can ask them to draw pictures. One primary school they talk about buckets. In our family we now have family language to tackle ‘rage attacks’ and ’empty buckets’ and I wonder if it shouldn’t be also part of secondary schooling to discuss the power of metaphors to communicate deep and uneasy feelings when ‘bucket’ doesn’t cut it.

Grief box

When I lost my friend I was bewildered by the pain of it. Someone told me about the grief box metaphor and it helped me a lot. I knew that triggers could come hard and fast at first because the grief is a ball bouncing inside a box covered in buttons that are pushed with every rattle and shake of the box. Any thing can quite unexpectedly push a button and the grief is overwhelming. Over time, though, the ball inside the box grows bigger and the buttons still press when the box is shaken, but just not as hard and fast. As the ball grows, they kind of all get pressed but only gently. The pain swells to something different over time that is triggered less by shakes and rattles often box because the ball, once it reaches a certain size, can’t really move. I guess it is more numb even when still there. I have used the grief box metaphor to understand my feelings and also recognize ‘shake up days’ early on when everything seemed to be a trigger. The metaphor nearly a year on is not a magic trick, but it does help to talk about the otherwise too big feelings that can’t be expressed as easily without the imagery provided by the metaphor. Metaphor was very powerful for me.

Naming the emotion

I spoke to a secondary student recently who, in her own words, just feels really stuck. She couldn’t describe the feelings she had and they are engulfing her. We sat in the sun and talked about mindfulness and trying to enjoy the little things like sitting in the sun. I talked to her about the grief box as an idea to use metaphor. I talked about how artists use their art to work through feelings too. Sometimes when words fail, images might step up. When images fail, color might be useful. I am no psychologist, but I do know that throughout history (art and poetry and music) – big feelings can be communicated even when we dont have a specific word for them. And sometimes just being heard (or seen) helps.

The power of words

When we have black patches at home it helps to talk about it. I have a black cloud today. I can see you have an empty bucket. You are feeling remorse (complex emotions). My bucket is empty today etc. The power of words to name emotions with smaller children is palpable. When we name the emotion, some of it becomes more tameable and the big emotion recedes visibly.

So how can we make a difference in schools?

At the beginning of the week, my senior art classes have a 5 minute stand up where the first question is how is your happy tank. We give a number between one and ten and an opportunity to give a reason. I’m an 8 today because I got heaps of painting done in the holidays and my creative bucket is full. Or, I’m a three, I’m feeling really stressed. This gives me an opportunity to differentiate my lesson to also cater for wellbeing needs. (My office is full of plants as a mini retreat if kids need it). Having an opportunity in a day to tell someone how you are (check out my windscreen wiper blog on this too) could make a small difference to the feeling of being seen.

With an additional Te Reo lens, I’ve started to ask students, ‘Kei te pehea koe?’ As they come in so that we are building Te Reo vocab about feelings at the same time. It is ok to feel ‘Hoha’ (not great) and also not necessarily normal to always be ‘kei te pai’. Tired is a common adjective we need too. Here is a website with more words in case you are interested.

Managing self

One of the key competencies of the NZ curriculum is managing self. More often than not my focus is on the thinking competency, but I have not thought about applying the thinking to managing self. And what about managing self with a wellbeing lens? When designing course content and assessment opportunities with kids I have been discussing other side requirements with them too. In a perfect world, every student should enter every standard, but what about when students are also leading the choir, directing the school production, dancing in a national hip hop competition, looking after a sick relative or needing to work a part time job to support the family or struggling with putting their mental health and wellbeing into their schedule at all? What about when we can see the potential for a stormy patch on the horizon when we are loading them up with our previous subject expectations?

NZQA encourages us as teachers to take programs to suit individual students. Less credits meaningfully applied within a more balanced life is a better approach than more credits for a student to spread themselves thinly over. I recently fielded an inquiry to NZQA about assessment opportunities missed due to complex home expectations and the general guidance was that, if a Dean red flags a student, then the subject teachers might lessen the load to support the student’s best chances for success. The tailoring of content and assessment expectations across subjects makes for a good argument for project based inquiry learning that combines multiple subjects and assessments as it can be managed from a more humanist centre when planning…

Humanising the curriculum

My major at University was Art History and humanism was a philosophy that informed the Renaissance. From the American humanist website, “Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.” It struck me as odd when studying the High Renaissance initially that they could be so fascinated by what it means to be human and how it could drive proportion, scale, psychological states in portraiture and a celebration of human achievement at such a rate of immense progress. The psychological state of the sitter was a key component in designing and developing the portrait beyond a full frontal ‘dead’ representation. It is an interesting side note that we seem to have lapsed in our interest in what is going on behind the eyes. Do we need a new renaissance? Do we need to drive the arts (and education) motivated more by compassion?

Self care

I have written about managing assessment around self. What might a day look like if we all prioritised and talked about what we do to keep our personal buckets full (or at least not enpty)? I prioritize running and ‘something creative’ as a way to keep my brain in order. If I can’t run, yoga. If I can’t be creative (painting, writing, drawing, music) I need to get amongst the trees. I know these things as personal essentials for keeping ahead of the shadow. What do you do? And are the things a priority or an accident? Do you talk about them? My kids know these things about me, but my students- I don’t think they do and I am wondering if I need to change it in order to model ‘what we do to keep our self well’.


On a final note, I have found a fantastic illustrator who i have credited above. She, along with a few other students have inspired this post. She draws about the worries and illustrates big ideas with inspiring clarity. If you do one thing today, check out her Instagram page and find an image that resonates with you, get it on a mug and talk about it with someone. She gives images to many things that are hard to talk about. Maybe by sharing them we can take a big step and offer a prompt for talking about it, name the shadow and force it to retreat a little.

You can follow my creative life on Instagram too if you like. I’m here: My instagram.


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